The Power of Storytelling for Children


Storytelling as a tool for social change

Written by Rafaela Mendes

More or less 5 years ago, one of my anthropology professors asked in the class “How can we learn about a foreign culture?” and the International Relations students, including myself, answered things like learning the language, understanding the political system and how it was established; searching about the history of the country; the social relations between the classes or/and the genders, their relation with the environment, understanding the current social problems and so on.

Then, he asked again “When we have our first contact with our own culture?”  and the major answer was “in childhood, in the relationship with our family and in the first years of school”. By the end of that class, he advised us if we want to understand a foreign culture, we must understand how this culture is taught in the early days of life.

Fast-forward to this month, I arrived in India and I don’t know anything about the country, the people and their culture. Then, following the advice of my teacher I Goggled for “Indian story books for kids” and I found that a lot of the Indian children’s literature is based on ancient oral stories.

I have found a point in common between Brazil and India: both countries have a tradition in oral storytelling to teach children their history and culture.

Oral storytelling can easily capture the kid's attention and for some minutes or even hours, the children will be immersed in a magical world with heroes and heroines, gods and goddess, mythical creatures in marvelous adventures. But, despite being a playful way to spend their times, these stories use the power of emotion and imagination (and we know kids have a lot of this) to teach a collective memory.

Through this collective memory (religious beliefs, norms of personal relationships, common perceptions about historical facts and the way people see the world, their role, their fate and much more) the storytelling is a powerful tool to shape the kid’s mind and behavior in a way that will be reflected later on in adulthood.

Storytelling does however have a negative aspect as well. Being a cultural manifestation, these stories teach valuable lessons on how to live in a community, but are also tools to reinforce negative aspects of culture. Looking back on some of the most popular Brazilian kid’s stories and children, I noticed a lot of prejudice, racism and sexism.

The most important aspect of storytelling remains the same: the person who tells the story. Oral stories have been modified through time, with each storyteller making a contribution to the way we know and remember these stories. They hold the power to add new facts, descriptions and meanings to what is being told.

The storyteller is beyond a guardian of an oral culture, they have the power to change these traditional stories and the way we perceive our own collective memory. The power of storytelling is not in replicating the culture, but giving the people a tool to change it, retelling their stories and re-signifying them.

What stories do we want to tell the children?

About Rafaela: Brazilian, the big sister of a 3-year-old boy, graduated in International Relations, and now studying Social Innovation at Amani Institute. I believe education and citizen engagement in politics are tools to change our histories. In the next four months, I will share a little bit about myself, my journey and adventures trying to cross the Indian streets.

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